Interdisciplinarity

The first-years are all obliged to take a course called a “proseminar”, but with regard to the curious prefix, what this seminar actually comes before or supports, I cannot say for sure. Ostensibly, it serves the purpose of preparing us for our graduate school career: we’ve discussed various ways of visualizing what linguistics is and what linguists do, and we’ve also talked about practical matters like obtaining research funding.

Over the past couple of weeks, however, proseminar has turned into what we jokingly call Storytime, as we invite various faculty members to tell us about their work and their views on current issues in the discipline. Our facetiousness aside, I can really appreciate what I’m learning about the history of linguistics and about what real people in the otherwise abstract world of academia consider to be the value in their work. It’s like learning directly at the feet of the masters, if I may use such an outmoded cliché. I will never be tested on what I learn in this class, but there are seeds of wisdom being scattered here and there that I know I’m going to want to remember. In short, I appreciate Storytime.

Most recently, we had the pleasure of talking with Terry Regier, who specializes, in his own words, in Language and Cognition — not to be confused with cognitive linguistics. Although one might scoff at what appears to be an individual academic’s need to use a unique moniker for his personal field of expertise, Professor Regier actually gave a decent and thought-provoking explanation for why he doesn’t build his nest of ideas in the safety of just one academic branch.

Basically, it’s about not boxing himself in. Throughout his career, Professor Regier bounced from computer science to psychology and finally landed in linguistics, where he remains on paper, but his academic interests have not exactly “evolved” to match his pedigree. He told us that his research has always involved computational models and language to some degree (which is how he knows linguistics is a good fit), but what really gets him going is the possibility of answering extremely broad, near-philosophical questions such as, “What is the relationship between language and thought?” This isn’t a question for linguistics alone, or even for psycholinguistics. It’s a very interdisciplinary question, and here I will define the title of this post: interdisciplinarity is the involvement of two or more academic areas of study (disciplines). I’d also like to add to this bare-bones description that interdisciplinarity is invoked for the sake of a stronger, more complete pursuit of knowledge.

During the Cognitive Revolution, an intellectual movement in the 1950s, great minds from psychology, anthropology, and linguistics joined forces and completely changed the way we approached understandings of the human mind. But afterward, well, the disciplines apparently stopped talking to each other; their literatures diverged and haven’t come back together since. Even the nascent field of cognitive linguistics, formed in the late eighties at a fertile nexus, has now inexplicably sequestered itself in its own ivory tower.

Personally, it’s funny how easy it can be to limit oneself. I used to say that I loved everything about linguistics and wanted to learn it all. In retrospect, this was utterly naïve; now, with more experience, I can say with dead certainty that there are entire swaths of the field that I’d rather avoid. But shouldn’t reality have shaped my interests instead of deadening my curiosity? When I have to give my dreaded self-introduction, I quickly say, “I’m a first-year and I’m interested in phonetics, endangered language documentation, and East Asian linguistics.” Full-stop. It’s as if I’ve made my choice about which three nicely distributed sub-fields I will focus on and need go no further.

What I realize I should be doing instead, is stepping back to take a look at the big picture: how do my sub-fields interface with others? Where do my interests cross paths or connect with ideas in, say, neuroscience, economics, or language pedagogy? But I don’t think I’m being taught how to do this yet; I’m not learning about how linguistics informs and is informed by other disciplines.

Now, I get asked about once a week, “What do linguists do, anyway?” My friends want to know what kinds of careers I am qualified for besides the obvious two: professor and researcher. But it feels both silly and wrong to list the same small set of jobs in which knowledge of linguistics is useful (e.g. interpreter, speech therapist, computer scientist, educational policymaker, lexicographer… and all of these are very much in the applied linguistics camp, anyway.)

So what am I to do with my education? Professor Regier gave some very good insight into this that — rather unsurprisingly, given that we’re academics — simply reversed the question. You see, language is a fundamental of communication (obviously), and even a fundamental of society, so really, what can’t one do with training in linguistics?

His reasoning referenced parts of the commencement address given to the Berkeley undergraduates in Interdisciplinary Studies by Geoffrey Nunberg in 2010. This speech (which can be read here) fittingly touched on a wide array of topics from multiculturalism to linguistic prejudice to intellectual socialization and, more importantly, illustrated how language really is central to perception, division, and unification in society. I quote: “The world is just so much undifferentiated kapok until language comes along and sews its seams into it.”

The core message, though, was that even though people everywhere find a will and a way to categorize, to box in, to erect dichotomies and speak of them as if they’ve always existed, it is the responsibility of those who have learned how to cross boundaries to do so fearlessly. In academia in particular, we find “our own strain of exclusivity and chauvinism, which grow out of the way we chop up our world into disciplines,” and the result is that every discipline must spotlight some things while marginalizing others. Nunberg even calls this “a certain considered violence to the complexities of experience.” The only way out is to work with the world the way it is, understanding the myriad ways in which everything is inextricably linked, and to make the most of our different perspectives.

I certainly found these words inspiring; they added depth to what Professor Regier was saying about the arbitrary fences that academics like to build between themselves and any Other whose work is even slightly justifiably differentiable. But linguists, he maintained, actually have a kind of advantage in their familiarity with language, its sources, and the process by which the infinite data that is being used and mined by everyone today is produced. He praised the way linguistics could find its way into every nook and cranny of every department, both within the ivory tower complex and without. What he said that has stuck with me all week is that “linguistic is effortlessly global in its scope”.

So down with the barriers! I was grateful for the pep talk, reassured that there certainly are options out there for me outside of academia if I so desire them. For the time being, my goal is still to be a full-time teacher and researcher, but it seems I’ve been given leave to explore other paths, too. On that note, perhaps proseminar is actually a portmanteau of profession(al development) + seminar.

Have you ever seen two very different ideas (or worldviews, leadership styles, game plans, cultures, etc.) work well together?

ω

Word of the Day: kapok, from Malay or Javanese, the cottony fiber obtained from the seeds of a tropical tree that grows in Central and South America. It is fluffy and water-resistant and was used to stuff life jackets and teddy bears. It’s, well, not the strangest metaphor I’ve ever heard for the world…

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About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in musings, school, what even is linguistics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Interdisciplinarity

  1. When I was a kid, I had a book called The Great Kapok Tree.

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  2. ThePhDstudent says:

    Regarding ‘pro-‘ in ‘proseminar,’ it stands for ‘professionalization.’

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    • Andrew C. says:

      Oh, I see! Thanks, Hannah! My guess wasn’t too far off, then. 🙂

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    • Hmm, that’s interesting, because we have proseminars here too, and I’m pretty sure the “pro-” doesn’t stand for “professionalization”. Of course, it sounds like our proseminars are different things. Here, proseminars are classes while seminars are not. It’s not terribly intuitive.

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